A short story about Tom.

Tom* helps keep the streets of Redfern, NSW clean. Every day, Tom takes a large bag of other peoples’ rubbish – rubbish which would have otherwise ended up tossed on the footpaths and in the gutters – and disposes of it responsibly.

Tom doesn’t work for the City of Sydney Council. In fact, Tom doesn’t have a paid job at all. He’s been on a Disability Support Pension since he was diagnosed with chronic emphysema in 2009. He now lives with the live-sustaining burden (as he refers to it) of a ‘continuous oxygen therapy’ rig. A former farmer from rural Queensland, Tom says that he doesn’t like to “bludge off the country” but recognises that he would not be able to survive without his social security payments.

Tom can’t walk more than 40 or 50 small steps without running out of breath. Thankfully for the neighbouring residents in his part of Redfern, it’s only 15 steps for Tom to get to the wrought iron fence at the front of his old terrace house. The twice-daily return journey of 30 steps, which takes him almost 20 minutes each time, is how Tom gives back to his community.

Every morning, while the air is at its coolest and his lungs at their peak, Tom strings a couple of plastic shopping bags over his fence for passers-by to put their rubbish in. He returns in the late afternoon to replace the filled bags with empty ones, and brings the collected rubbish inside his property to put in his council ‘wiz bin’.

There are no garbage bins for more than 200m in each direction on Tom’s side of the street. Rather than moan about litterbugs, Tom took direct action. And it works. People ultilise Tom’s service to the community and I can report that his little section of the street is generally free of litter.

Tom cares not about reward or accolade. He simply wants to reconcile, in his own mind, his ‘debt’ to society. Tom’s specialist gives him another 3-4 months before his lungs will finally pack-up for good. When that day comes it will be a sad one for Redfern.

I’m not one to pointlessly philosophise, but every time I pass Tom’s house I’m reminded that you don’t need to be extraordinary or do the extraordinary to make a difference to your community.

But Tom’s 30 steps – twice a day – makes him extraordinary in my eyes.

(*) Note: As requested by “Tom”, I have not used his real name to protect his privacy.

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